Op/Ed: The Inspiration for Engineering

One expert says that we need to demystify engineering and serve kids' natural inclination to learn, discover, tinker and build.

Ray Almgren, vice president of marketing for National Instruments.

My dad was a hands-on guy. He repaired our cars, ran the electrical wiring in our house and did all our plumbing work himself. And he didn’t fix anything without taking me along, showing me his work every step of the way and letting me help.

He also was an engineer at one of the leading tech companies in the world. I knew from an early age what being an engineer meant – solving problems, figuring out how things work, and making them better. I never considered being anything but an engineer.

My inspiration to become an engineer stemmed from two things: I had a role model and I had the opportunity to learn by doing.

By working alongside my dad, I learned how things are made. I remember taking apart a telephone with him, learning how the signals came in through the cord and how the ringer and speakers worked.

Today, opportunities for children to have experiences like this are limited. I can’t take apart an iPhone with my daughter to teach her about the. Phones today are insanely complicated, closed systems made up of multiple subsystems – displays, processors, cameras and so on. Technology is now so complex it has become inaccessible.

In order to get the kind of inspiration that led me down the path of becoming an engineer, children need experiences that demystify engineering and serve their natural inclination to learn, discover, tinker and build.

Products like the LEGO Mindstorms robotics platform and programs such as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics have provided a platform for kids to do just this. These organizations work with industry partners like National Instruments to combine toys that kids already love – LEGO bricks and robots – with real-world engineering tools to make engineering accessible, fun and engaging in a way that is relevant with the times.

Today, more than 3 million students create, build, program, and succeed using the LEGO Mindstorms platform in and out of the classroom. And the FIRST student robotics competition is gaining ground as a viable alternative to after-school sports as FIRST strives to create a culture that prioritizes and celebrates accomplishments in science, technology, engineering and math.

Just like we need to demystify today’s technology, we need to demystify the people behind that technology. For science and engineering, inspiration is everywhere -- SpaceX is launching rockets to space, CERN is creating the world's largest particle accelerator and projects such as North American Eagle are working to break the world land speed record. Engineering brings us gadgets and airplanes and skyscrapers. And while we may know these things make our lives better, we don’t know who actually works on them.

It’s critical to put engineers in environments where kids can see who they are and that they are just like their parents and neighbors and friends. This is how engineering can go mainstream. Kids don’t have to grow up with an engineer in their home like I did to have an engineering role model. But they do need to meet them, see them and spend time with them.

One of the keys to the success of the FIRST robotics programs is the thousands of engineering volunteers who serve as mentors, coaches, and judges for the organization. These volunteers share their knowledge, teach students essential engineering concepts and, most importantly, humanize the millions of engineers who make the world work.

Students today are living in a different world than the one I grew up in, but the key to inspiring them to pursue careers in engineering and science remain the same. Students need the opportunity to learn by doing and they need role models to help them see firsthand the value and impact of choosing to become an innovator.

Ray Almgren, vice president of marketing at National Instruments, evangelizes the importance of STEM education as chairman of the board of FIRST in Texas and member of the National FIRST executive advisory board.

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